Beneath the glitter

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Drew and St. John, proud steamers of the People’s New York & Albany Evening Line, pass on the Hudson River. And the two most important men on board? The captain and … the steward.

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Skippering the 388-foot Drew was not an easy job. Beneath the gilt and glamour, the “palace steamer” was a complex and sometimes temperamental machine. The enormous steam engines reflected the latest in marine design and engineering, and it was up to the captain to keep things running smoothly.

The captain also shouldered enormous social responsibilities, acting as maitre d’, chief of police, father confessor and “court of last resort for every conceivable complaint,” as one skipper put it. With births and deaths, card sharks, deadbeats and stowaways on board, “everything happened on the ‘old wagon,’ ” said Capt. Rowland, skipper of the Fall River Line steamship Priscilla. “I don’t have to sail across the Atlantic to get a bellyful of excitement.”

These opulent steamers also were floating hotels that catered to hundreds of guests every night. Everything was first-class, with dinner the highlight of the evening. That made the steward’s job the second-most-important on board.

Provisioning was critical, and it had to be done every day, following a specific edict: “The steward must provide for all possible contingencies. … His supplies of food must be ample enough for passengers and crew … [and] he must never run short.”

On her daily summer run between Fall River and New York, the 440-foot Priscilla’s steward took on a ton of roasts, steaks and chops, along with 200 pounds of poultry, 240 dozen eggs, 500 loaves of bread, 100 gallons of milk, 300 pounds of butter, 300 pounds of fresh fish and 100 pounds of coffee.

The kitchen crew turned out an array of fancy dishes, as well as standard fare. Menu items included broiled lobster (75 cents), porterhouse steak and mushrooms ($1.50), Maryland crab salad (35 cents) and nine oyster dishes.

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue.